A Road Trip, Eastbound: Highway 80
My uncle David and my mother are the last ones. All the rest of them — the aunts, the uncles — are gone. Born throughout the 1940s, my parents’ generation has reduced steadily in number since about 2010, with my dad being the first one out. So, when David texted the single word “Please” to me out of the blue, I texted him back, “You okay?” Then my phone rang. He had sent the message to me by accident, but it was as good a reason as any to talk.
David and I typically have a chat once a year, right around Christmas, and we always start off by apologizing to each other for not calling sooner. He is my father’s younger brother, who moved away to west Georgia before I was born, but since I grew up in the house that my father inherited from their parents, we’ve still got some common ground. These visits are particularly pleasant, since my late father was a stickler and a disciplinarian, while his brother feels less of a compulsion toward such a self-restrictive attitude. It’s refreshing to spend time with him, and after that accidental text, we agreed to meet on a Friday at a burger joint he knows that’s across US Highway 80 from the dirt-track speedway in Russell County.
The drive wasn’t bad — only about an hour — and thankfully it took me off I-85 and onto the backroads pretty quickly. Running down Highway 80 in Lee and Russell counties doesn’t offer much to the site-seer: scattered homesteads, a few sod farms, and an occasional country gas station. It’s a good road if you like having guys in pickup trucks ride your back bumper for miles, but beyond that there’s not much opportunity for excitement. That is, until you reach Crawford, where the Rainbow Foods, a few churches, and a historic marker or two offer some local flavor. Moving west toward the Georgia-Alabama line, the East Alabama Motor Speedway was quiet on that Friday, though the parking lot at the Burgers N’ More was full. Among the trucks there was my uncle’s.
In the South, family narratives may not reach wide but they do reach deep. These stories about our ancestors and these nuggets of information about the days that preceded our births can shape our beliefs about our own identities. The problem is that they are often tainted by memory and perception and affected by time. Memories that are shared in the context of certain era may lack that context in the era when they’re shared. Personality traits or actions that may have been commonplace in the past can seem odd, awkward, or even wrong in the present.
But since our family was scattered around central Alabama and west Georgia and not ever close, I enjoy listening to David talk about it. The past fascinates me, and I maintain a pretty nonjudgmental attitude about people I never knew, so rarely does an unexpected fact or insight upset me. One of the nice things about David is: he knew my dad — who could be a difficult person — as a brother, not as a father. My father’s presence has loomed large over my life, but his brother lacks that sense of awe. Second, he knew my dad before my mother came into the picture, and listening to him describe those early days provides some back story for the man that I knew. Finally, David can tell me a lot about my grandmother — his mother — who died two years before I was born. I have primarily heard about this important ancestor through my own mother, who was after all describing her mother-in-law. . . and that’s all I have to say about that.
Despite having grown up in a family where neither of my parents had a college education, I have understood that my paternal grandmother believed in it staunchly. The word all around was that she felt like there were two kinds of people: those who went to college, and those who didn’t. Her father — my great-grandfather — was purported to be the first CPA in Alabama, and she herself went to Troy State Teachers College, now Troy University. However, my paternal grandfather — her husband — only completed the eighth grade, and one of her three children got a bachelors degree. When I was growing up, my dad railed against college and had nothing good to say about the institution or the people. His vocal disdain posed a distinct challenge, since my mother made no secret of wanting both my brother and me to earn degrees. I was not a first-generation college student technically — one grandmother and one aunt were teachers — but I was very much one in spirit. In stark contrast to the harshly critical narrative I heard at home, I have a master’s degree and have been both a high school teacher and a college instructor. In the South, many young people face this quandary: seeking a better life by becoming what they are raised to despise.
Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics that it matters not only what we do, but why we do it. I couldn’t agree more (which is why I created a project about how beliefs and myths pervade Southern culture). Though I showed little interest in our distant family relations in my early life, today I crave their narratives. That craving has only been enhanced as they have passed away one by one, taking their experiences — and the eyewitness tales they could tell — with them. In so many cases, I know what my forebears did . . . but not why. Resources like Ancestry.com or the Archives & History allow me to know more than I do, but their records fall short of giving me the answers that I am truly looking for.
It was nearly 2:00 PM by the time I finished my plate of catfish and cole slaw and realized how long we’d been sitting there together. The little restaurant had emptied out, and one of the women who worked there asked us somewhat suspiciously, as she was emptying the trash, if there was anything else we needed. No, we said, and took it as our cue to move on. Time stops for no one: David’s wife had a hair appointment, and I didn’t need to be on a two-lane road after dark. (I’ve inherited my dad’s night blindness, apparently, and can’t see anything when oncoming headlights shine my way. ) We’ll do this again, we both promised, and if the Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise, then we will.
*Pictured above is my uncle David in 1950.
Originally published at http://modernsouthernfolklore.com on December 29, 2022.